We’re already halfway through March and so much has already happened in the tennis calendar.
Novak won his 10th Australian Open and 22nd grand slam. Iga Świątek went through a hot streak after the AO, only dropping 5 games on her way to the Qatar title before succumbing to Barbora Krejčíková in the Dubai final. And Medvedev has recaptured his best form, recently winning 3 hard court titles in a row.
In terms of Aussies, there is plenty to look forward to on both the Men’s and Women’s sides. Here are my picks for Aussie players to watch out for in 2023.
Now firmly back inside the top 100, Jason Kubler is one of Aussie tennis’ great comeback stories.
Injury-plagued (with a staggering 6 knee operations) and financially down and out after an unsuccessful coaching stint, Kubler spent eight years in the tennis wilderness after a much-hyped beginning as a talented 17-year-old in 2011.
Since 2018, Kubler has been steadily working his way back to the world’s elite, taking his ranking to a career-high of 71 in February this year.
2022 proved to be Kubler’s best year on tour, making the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier. 2023 has started even better, with the Aussie going on the most unlikely run to win the Australian Open doubles title with another promising local up-and-comer, Rinky Hijikata.
Along the way, Kubler has taken some big scalps including Roberto Bautista Agut (at the 2018 U.S. Open), Grigor Dimitrov (at this year’s Indian Wells) and particularly top-10 Canadian star, Felix Auger-Alliasime in Newport last year.
All of these results have given the Brisbanite belief in his game. Speaking with the First Serve after his win over Lorenzo Sonego at Indian Wells, Kubler said, “it’s definitely giving me confidence winning more regularly on the ATP tour. In the past, I haven’t played too much at this level, so each time I get a win it gives me a bit more confidence.” He then went on to defeat former World Number 3 Grigor Dimitrov in the 2nd round.
Here’s hoping the 29-year-old can continue building this confidence throughout the 2023 season.
Taking a set off the great Rafael Nadal in last year’s U.S. Open put Rinky Hijikata on everyone’s radars. Winning the 2023 Australian Open doubles title with compatriot, Jason Kubler put the 22-year-old on the map.
Hijikata made his ATP and grand slam debut in 2022, after a successful stint in the U.S. college circuit from 2019-2021. Since then, he has won consecutive ITF tournaments, recorded his first ATP win at Los Cabos and won a maiden Challenger title, getting his ranking down to 159 at the end of 2022.
2023 started with a bang, firstly with an incredible come-from-behind victory over German, Yannick Hanfmann in the first round of the Australian Open then, of course, that doubles title. Hijikata then made his Masters 1000 debut at Indian Wells as a qualifier and is now within striking distance of the world’s top 100.
After his recent win over Mikael Ymer, the Sydneysider believes he is slowly adjusting to playing at the highest level. “I’m still growing and I’m still trying to get used to playing guys at this level. My level’s there, I just have to keep trying to maintain it.”
Clearly Hijikata is a young talent who is growing in belief, every day.
Tennis can be a cruel sport, especially for Thanasi Kokkinakis. Injuries have plagued the talented 26-year-old’s career, with ongoing shoulder problems sidelining the Aussie during the 2016 and 2019 seasons. Then glandular fever hit early in 2020 just to rub salt in the wound, as Kokkinakis’ ranking blew out to 258 by the end of the year.
Nevertheless, the South Australian came back in 2021 and chipped away, making a number of Challenger-level semi-finals to bring his ranking down to 171. 2022 saw him start the year with his first ATP title since 2017, winning in front of his home crowd at Adelaide 2.
Then, of course, Kokkinakis had a famous run alongside good friend, Nick Kyrgios at the 2022 Australian Open, taking out the doubles title over fellow Aussies, Max Purcell and Matthew Ebden. He then notched up some solid wins at Miami and Geneva over strong opponents including Diego Schwartzman, Richard Gasquet and Fabio Fognini. By the end of 2022, the Kokk was back inside the top 100 for the first time since 2015.
While results might not show it, 2023 has started promisingly for the 26-year-old. He made the semis of Adelaide 2, beating world number 7, Andrey Rublev along the way before being 1 game away from making a career-first, third-round appearance at the Australian Open.
Despite so many setbacks, Kokkinakis continues to stay upbeat. “I think for me, as long as I’m enjoying it, my better tennis comes out. To be honest, I’m doing my name a disservice having a career high of 69 so I’m trying to push myself to see how far I can go.”
German-born Kim Birrell is yet another case of bad luck with injuries. After a promising start in 2019, making the third round of the Australian Open, Birrell sustained an elbow injury at Wimbledon that would sideline her for 18 months.
The road to recovery was a long one, as Birrell plummeted from 245 to 735 in the world at the end of 2020 and only played 3 tournaments in 2021.
Then, in 2022, the familiar Aussie comeback story, as Birrell slowly worked her way back up to a world ranking of 167 by the end of the year.
Luck was on her side at the start of 2023 as Birrell was granted a wildcard to the Australian Open after Venus Williams pulled out injured. She then made her top 150 debut by beating 31st seed, Kaia Kanepi, recording her first main draw win in 4 years.
Despite just losing in the first round at Indian Wells, Birrell has been in career-best form lately. A big month abroad, with a quarter-final appearance in Mexico, has seen the Queenslander’s ranking rise to a career-high of 115.
Speaking earlier in the month to the First Serve, Birrell is optimistic about 2023. “Personally I’m feeling really positive and I’m really glad that I decided to take the leap and go overseas for this next little bit because it’s time for me to give it that little extra push. Who knows what 2023’s gonna hold.”
Mainly competing in ITFs up to this stage of her career, Olivia Gadecki had her biggest breakthrough at this year’s Australian Open, winning her opening-round match against Russian, Polina Kudermetova.
This victory was a year in the making after an unranked Gadecki first burst onto the international stage with a stunning victory over 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin at the 2021 Phillip Island Trophy event at Melbourne Park.
Despite missing the 2022 Australian Open due to her COVID-19 vaccination stance, Gadecki had a rapid rise up the rankings from 230 at the end of 2021 to currently sitting at 144.
The 20-year-old also has an ace up her sleeve, being mentored by none other than Ash Barty. “I’m so lucky to have her. Whenever I need advice or anything, I’m always able to contact her,” the Queenslander said after her maiden Australian Open victory.
With her powerful baseline game and Barty in her corner, Gadecki’s star looks set to continue shining brightly in 2023.
Storm Hunter (nee Sanders)
Despite winning the U.S. Open mixed doubles title last year with Aussie stalwart, John Peers, Storm Hunter is probably not a household name (yet).
Choosing to focus primarily on doubles in 2017, Hunter’s doubles career really took off in 2022, winning 3 major WTA events and, of course, that U.S. Open, all with different partners.
While mostly a doubles specialist, Hunter is nevertheless more than capable as a singles player. She won the Billie Jean King Cup Heart award for her heroic efforts at last year’s event with a hat-trick of victories over higher-ranked opponents, proving this claim.
Hunter also had a couple of tough 3-set losses against future grand slam champions, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, in 2022, proving she could compete with the best in the world.
Her career-high singles ranking is 119 and she currently sits inside the world's top 10 in doubles, proving she is a double threat.
Juggling singles with doubles has been a tricky proposition for Hunter, but one the girl from Rockhampton continues to pursue.
After recently winning a 60K ITF event in Burnie, Hunter’s singles ranking elevated back inside the top 200 and the Queenslander spoke of her desire to keep improving.
“My goals do change, depending on my rankings but I really wanna get my singles high. Ideally, I do wanna play in both events, singles and doubles, at the same tournaments.”
And Special Mention Goes to…
Rising 100 spots in just three weeks to secure a spot back inside the top 100, Max Purcell has had an incredible recent run of success. This is mostly due to his 15-match win streak at the Challenger level in an Indian hat-trick of titles. Yes, you read that right, 3 title wins in a row. Sometimes success can come quicker than anticipated.
Indeed, most tennis enthusiasts know Purcell as a doubles specialist, particularly given his incredible 5-set victory at the Wimbledon final last year with fellow Aussie, Matthew Ebden.
While Purcell has played almost 5 times as many doubles matches as he has singles matches on the ATP tour, the Sydneysider is clearly keen to diversify and is hungry for more singles success.
Crediting his recent success with less phone time to “stop with distractions off court”, Purcell plans on solely playing singles this year but still hopes to play singles and doubles at the Grand Slams. The 24-year-old will be hoping to back up his recent Challenger triumphs at the Las Franquesas Del Valles and Lille Challengers in Spain and France respectively.